Friday, March 28, 2014


I remember reading something on one of my social media feeds to the effect of "If I follow the path this person walked, I will end up in the same place," remarking that doing the same things as a person being lauded will result in the same thing for which the person was lauded. It seems like it ought to make sense; follow the trodden road to reach the destination. But it fails to take into account other things and other ideas that influence the results of actions, and so it comes off as sloppy reasoning. (As I recall, the person in question has been trumpeted for being intelligent and for being in a good program at a good university. The sloppiness in reasoning is somewhat more annoying therefore; the person ought to know better.*)

Getting to the same location in the same condition as those who have gone before (and being in the same condition is necessary to get the same result) requires that the circumstances along the way be the same as they were for those who have gone before. To continue with the metaphor of physical travel, the road has to be in the same condition now as when those who went before went; if there are new potholes or construction, the travel will be altered. Too, the weather needs to be the same; a drive on a sunny road is far different than one in the pounding rain, and the driver will be in a far different state after the one than after the other. The scenery and surroundings need also to be the same for the result to be the same; changes to the cost of gas or food, or to the food offerings, or to the foliage will change the experience of the drive, the comfort of the driver, and the resources available to the driver at the drive's end. So will the company along the way; how other people in the car behave, and how many of them there are, makes a difference. Neglecting them and focusing only on the route traveled is not helpful; it is an oversimplification that fails to account for much that needs to be considered.

The oversimplification exemplifies one of the problems with aphorisms and the trite. By making things simple and easy, they strip from those things layers of meaning that may or may not be immediately evident but that certainly offer a better understanding of those things. They remove information necessary to make the best possible decisions, and so they strip from those who hear them part of their ability to meaningfully engage with the world--unless they follow up with additional questions. But those questions are seldom forthcoming; the pithiness of aphorism and the comfort of cliché tend to forestall further inquiry, for they sound final--but they need not to be.

*As I perhaps ought to know better than to make passive-aggressive comments.

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